Serviceable but toothless look at the poster children for brainy hip-hop.
Fronted by African-American culture pundit Chuck D and current reality-TV star Flavor Flav, Public Enemy is arguably the most important unit ever produced by the hip-hop nation. (Rolling Stone included them on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.) The group’s singular ability to combine politically conscious lyrics and funky beats, all tied together by Chuck’s clarion voice and Flav’s goofball onstage and in-studio clowning, is why they are one of the few rap groups whose 20-year-old music sounds and feels as if it could have been created today. Yet up until now, aside from Chuck’s two hit-and-miss memoirs, there have been no Public Enemy books—as opposed to at least 15 titles about Kurt Cobain and/or Nirvana, to name one of the only bands of that era equally important within its own genre. Was Village Voice arts editor Myrie’s study worth the wait? Sort of. He had full access to Chuck, Flav and the rest of the crew, to the brain trust at Def Jam Records and to virtually everybody else who played a role in the group’s artistic and cultural success; all of them were forthcoming and generous with their stories and observations. Unfortunately, the book is almost completely rooted in fact: Here’s what happened in the studio…here’s what happened on tour…here’s the next album, etc. Myrie offers very little historical context or analysis, which seems a particularly grievous oversight in the first-ever group portrait.
Discerning fans will want a more in-depth, wide-ranging book, but that may not happen until Public Enemy hangs up the microphones. In the interim, this genial survey will have to suffice.